Bin Laden Weakened, Officials Say
By David A. Vise and Lorraine Adams
Since the deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 that killed 224 people, bin Laden's attempts to carry out terrorist acts aimed at the United States, Jordan, Albania and elsewhere have been foiled by the cooperative efforts of intelligence officials around the world, sources said. While no one is declaring victory over bin Laden, who is living in Afghanistan, the round-the-clock focus on his movements and methods has proven effective at combating terrorist acts.
Dozens of terrorists allegedly trained in Afghanistan and connected to bin Laden have been arrested in Britain, Germany, Canada, the United States, Jordan and Pakistan, sources said. Thirteen were arrested after allegedly conspiring to bomb the Radisson Hotel in Jordan and nearby holy sites frequented by U.S. and Israeli tourists; 12 others were arrested as they attempted to carry out a bomb plot in the United States by ferrying explosives into the country from Canada.
Informants in the Middle East and elsewhere have provided intelligence and law enforcement officials with valuable information about bin Laden's movements and plans, sources said, after infiltrating his al Qaeda terrorist network and training camps in Afghanistan.
The net result of the arrests, the increased surveillance, cooperation among intelligence services and infiltration has been to weaken bin Laden's terrorist infrastructure and limit his freedom of movement.
Ely Karmon, senior research scholar for the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism in Israel, said that bin Laden lost a lot of his infrastructure after the Kenya and Tanzania bombings. "Most of the operatives were arrested in East Africa, Pakistan and Germany, and extradited to the United States," Karmon said. "He didn't make any spectacular attacks since."
Michael E. Rolince, chief of the FBI's International Terrorism Section, agrees, but is more wary. "Do we think we've had some successes? Yes. Have the successes had an overall impact? I believe they have. Is there a concern that we could get hit again? Clearly."
Rolince said the FBI counts as its successes the indictments in the embassy bombings and the arrests of some of those indicted that came through new relationships with foreign governments. But he is not yet ready to describe the arrests associated with Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian man who was arrested Dec. 14 in Port Angeles, Wash., after bomb-making components were found in the trunk of his car, or the Jordan conspiracy as coups. "There still are significant pieces missing," he said.
The international community has pressured Afghanistan to turn bin Laden over to the United States, but the ruling Taliban militia continues to protect him, sources said. Despite news reports in the Middle East that bin Laden might be ill, U.S. law enforcement authorities say they remain committed to apprehending him and have not diminished their focus on the wealthy Saudi, who remains on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. They still consider him dangerous. There is, however, a global recognition that new alliances among U.S. and foreign security officials have weakened bin Laden and put him on the defensive.
"Like any good terrorist, he has modified his approach and changed some of his standard operating procedures to reflect the increased scrutiny that his organization has come under," a senior U.S. intelligence official said.
Bin Laden has begun focusing on "soft targets" such as hotels and tourist sites rather than embassies or government buildings, and recruiting Algerian terrorists and others who are not members of al Qaeda to carry out the attacks, sources said.
"The fact that he tried to use Algerians in Montreal is an interesting new approach for him," a U.S. intelligence official said. "He is trying to use proxies that share the same jihad philosophy of hatred for the West and get those folks to carry out his agenda. This growing diffuse web of extremism is a development of tremendous concern to us because it is challenging to track those folks."
Bin Laden's reputation in the terrorist community has not been diminished by the foiled attacks and increased scrutiny, sources said, in part because he has claimed victory by emphasizing that his organization has played a successful role in fighting the Russians in Chechnya. But U.S. and Middle Eastern experts say bin Laden does not appear to pose the same lethal terrorist threat that he did two years ago.
Egyptian authorities on fundamentalism said another factor that has diminished bin Laden's ability to carry out attacks is the drying up of some funds that had been channeled through philanthropic organizations to terrorists.
"People like him have been dramatically weakened in the last couple of years for a multiplicity of reasons," said Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "This kind of terrorism . . . is on the decline."
Still, not all of the behind-the-scenes dealings between foreign security services have proceeded smoothly, intelligence and law enforcement officials said. For example, Britain has rebuffed Jordanian requests to turn over Omar Abu Omar, who is believed to be in London and whom Jordanian officials are convinced played a role in the attempted terrorist attacks recently.
"There's a big disagreement between British authorities and the Jordanians," said Vince Cannistraro, former chief of counterterrorism for the CIA. "They demanded the Brits arrest him. . . . They might not want to arrest this guy; he may be a source of intelligence for them. That kind of thing has happened in the past."
Abu Omar is believed to be one of a number of powerful operatives in London with ties to bin Laden.
"There is an Islamic extremist presence in the U.K. and it is growing in importance," a U.S. law enforcement official said. "They provide money, they proselytize and they also assist in finding recruits. This is a growing problem."
U.S. officials praised the Jordanians for stopping bin Laden's planned attacks there in December. "Had he been successful in Jordan, that would have been quite a splash," one U.S. official said. "That one was important to foil. The Jordanians did a tremendous job there."
Among those imprisoned in Jordan and awaiting trial is Khalil Deek, a naturalized U.S. citizen who allegedly was one of the coordinators of the terrorist plot. He was arrested in Pakistan and extradited to Jordan after U.S. officials intervened behind the scenes, sources said. Deek has pleaded not guilty. He and others being held in Jordan face the death penalty if convicted.
Abu Zubaydah, the former head of Egypt-based Islamic Jihad and now a senior bin Laden official, was in contact with Deek before the Jordanian plot was foiled late last year, sources said. "Zubaydah had a direct role in managing Deek," a U.S. intelligence official said. "Deek was his conduit to the Jordanian [terrorist] cell."
Despite the extensive intelligence on bin Laden's al Qaeda network, U.S. officials cautioned that other terrorist cells exist that bin Laden could recruit to carry out future attacks. Furthermore, Zubaydah is believed to be moving between Pakistan and Afghanistan in a region with open borders. That worries U.S. and foreign intelligence officials. He allegedly played a key role in the East Africa embassy attacks and is regarded by bin Laden as a trusted aide with growing power.
Still, the ultimate decisions apparently are made by bin Laden himself.
"He is empowering the second tier with more authority," a U.S. intelligence official said. But "he makes the decision when he wants to try and kill Americans."
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company